A 1938 silent film, “Tree Trunk to Head,” opens a new exhibition dedicated to the work of sculptor Chaim Gross. Viewers can watch Gross transform a chunk of sabicu wood into a polished portrait of his wife Renee. His carving is a kind of choreography, as he achieves graceful, life-like contours.
“Home Away from Home: Chaim Gross and 70 Years at Educational Alliance,” celebrates the sculptor’s long connection to the Educational Alliance Art School on the Lower East Side, where he studied and taught.
Gross, who died in 1991, was born in 1904 in the village of Wolowa in the densely wooded Carpathian Mountains, the youngest of 10 siblings and the son of a forester. Over the next years, fleeing the Cossacks, he moved frequently, studying art in Budapest and Vienna, before immigrating to New York in 1921 with a brother, joining another brother already here. Arriving in the city, he worked as a delivery boy and dishwasher to get by, hoping to create art.
That same year, he began taking classes at the Educational Alliance, first in painting and then, when another student suggested that his work had three-dimensionality, sculpture. Beginning in 1928, he taught generations of students, including Louise Nevelson. Other artists he met became lifelong friends, such as the brothers Moses and Raphael Soyer.
“At the Alliance, he learned the fundamentals of sculpture and developed his own language of sculpture,” says Sasha Davis, curator of collections at the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, who curated the show.
In New York, Gross also studied sculpture at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design with Elie Nadelman and at the Art Students League with Robert Laurent. He had his first solo show in New York in 1932, and in 1933 began working for the government project that became the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and created sculpture for public colleges, Federal Buildings and the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Gross worked in stone and bronze, and his subjects were most often the human figure; he captured emotions through line and form, whether faces, mother and child pairings, acrobats combined in motion, often in totem-like arrangements, biblical figures or occasionally newsworthy figures, like “Lindbergh and Hauptmann Trial,” part of the exhibit. The poet Allen Ginsburg, in a 1991 tribute to his friend, described Gross’ abiding theme as “the human quality, the interdependence of the human.”
Once Gross’ career was well-established and he was showing and selling work widely and no longer needed to teach, he continued at the Educational Alliance, even after, as his daughter, the painter Mimi Gross, tells The Jewish Week, he was mugged in the nearby East Broadway subway station. She explains that he loved teaching, was very good at it and enjoyed the break from the solitary work in his studio.
Mimi Gross recalls regularly taking the subway downtown from their Upper West Side apartment while she was growing up, meeting her father at the end of class and then joining him and a group of his artist friends for dinner at a Lower East Side restaurant. While he gave up the religious orthodoxy of his childhood, she says that he was profoundly connected to Judaism. He enjoyed going to shul, and sometimes on a Friday night she’d accompany him to several different shuls. He traveled to Israel frequently, and Renee Gross was especially involved in raising funds for Israel. Mimi also says that at some point, perhaps after the birth of the State of Israel, he began doing more work on Jewish subjects.
The exhibit underlines his relationships with other artists with work such as Moses Soyer’s drawing “Chaim Gross Sculpting ‘The Alaskan Mailman’” (for a WPA project), Adolph Gottlieb’s oil painting of Renee and a Louise Nevelson drawing and lithograph. Davis says that she was influenced by the way that Chaim and Mimi would hang art, grouped together to highlight connections between adjacent pieces. There are also self-portraits of Chaim Gross, in walnut and on paper.
For the exhibition, Mimi did an expressive drawing of her father and Moses Soyer, from a photograph on display. Other photographs show students and a scene of Gross on Essex Street, talking to a group of boys about an etrog, circa 1935. There’s also a brightly colored portrait of Gross in his studio, carving “Two Acrobats,” by Mimi’s former husband, Red Grooms.
His 1940 “Balancing on a Unicycle” is one of several sculptures shown. This work in ebony is uplifting, leaning toward abstraction. Also featured are two large bronze menorahs, and nearby are pieces from Gross’ impressive collection of African art, including a wood-carved Sankofa bird by an unknown Ashanti artist — this bird bends its neck around so that it is looking backwards, looking to the past to move forward, a sentiment that spoke to Gross, Davis says. His menorah features birds.
While “Home Away from Home” focuses on his connection to the Educational Alliance, the exhibit also led me to the artist’s last home in New York City, now a gem of a museum. The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, a four-story 1873 building on LaGuardia Place, houses a collection of more than 10,000 objects including Gross’ sculptures, sketchbooks, drawings and prints; an archive of photographs; and his extensive collection of African, pre-Columbian, American and European art. Only some of the collection is on view, and the paintings are installed just as they had been during the couple’s lifetime.
The entrance hallway is covered with photographs of Chaim and Renee with others, including a young Yitzchak Rabin. Susan Fisher, executive director, points out that the foundation is named for both of them. “Renee was his muse, his manager, his rock.”
The first floor is his studio, with different-sized chisels in place, a tree trunk in a vice and other wood piled in a corner, his desk covered with tools and his sketchbook open to a drawing, as though he just ran out for a moment. Fisher describes the space as “a time capsule.” Gross designed the space, with its large skylight, inspired in part by European artist studios he admired. This was a work and social space, with many sculptures on display.
Beautiful paintings line the stairwells connecting the upper floors; they are hung close together, and many are signed to Chaim by friends. The third floor, the couple’s salon, has been open to the public since 2009 (the rest of the building since 1994), and it too is as they left it, at their request. Here are walls artfully crowded with works by Milton Avery, Moses Soyer, Federico Castellon, Jacob Lawrence, Stuart Davis, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Abraham Walkowitz and many others, as well as sculpture by friends and teachers, and pieces from Chaim’s collection of African sculpture. There’s color and movement everywhere.
At the Educational Alliance, 1500 people of diverse backgrounds, including many young children, walk in and out daily; many will pass the beginning of the exhibit. Some of the older adults have been coming to the Alliance since they were kids, and for them, Chaim Gross is the famous artist who taught here.
“Our building has the unique opportunity to show art to people who might not otherwise go to museums,” Rabbi Joanna Samuels, executive director of the Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center, says.
“We hope to make his work more well-known – the beautiful work reflects his own heritage as a Jewish immigrant and also uses the influences of African art and of the amazing vibrant city in which he lived. We hope that’s a message to all who see the work; we can be inspired by each other.”
She adds, “The next Chaim Gross may be sitting in one of our classrooms right now.” n
“Home Away from Home: Chaim Gross and 70 Years at Educational Alliance” is on view until Jan. 2, 2017 at Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center, 197 East Broadway, Manhattan.
The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, 526 LaGuardia Place, is open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays from 1-5 p.m. See rcgrossfoundation.org.